Skip to main content

Africa's not for sissies.

Free Fire
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I had low expectations for Free Fire, as nothing I’ve seen by Ben Wheatley has equalled the hype surrounding him. Yet this, which has garnered a somewhat mixed reaction, is streets ahead of his previous form, a very funny, delightfully-staged “bottle episode” period crime movie with an eclectic cast bouncing deliriously off each other.


Wheatley’s critical moment really occurred with Kill List, which ever so slightly left me with that feeling you get when you weren’t in on the joke. If that’s his outright horror picture, there’s nevertheless a streak of the macabre persisting through all his genre diversions to date (his next is a sci-fi featuring Alicia Vikander battling giant crabs with a shotgun …)  Free Fire’s no different, but here he’s wallowing in the ineptitude of violence, taking the warehouse setting of Reservoir Dogs but straining the tension through ghoulish giggles. An arms deal goes south not for reasons of double-crossing (although that does come into the mix) but due to a dispute between a couple of supporting idiots on the fringes of both parties.


Wheatley’s frequent good luck charm Michael Smiley excels as IRA man Frank, who with a very breezy Cillian Murphy (Chris) is arranging to purchase some MI6s that turn out to be AR70s (no, I wouldn’t know the difference either) from Sharlto Copley’s Vernon (in full-on South African scumbag mode). In the formers’ camp are Brie Larson (Justine), Enzo Cilenti (Bernie) and a hilariously useless Sam Riley (Stevo). Riley’s accent most certainly isn’t going to win him any awards, but his dishevelled inadequate is gifted some marvellously puerile lines (and, ultimately, the most OTT death scene).


On Copley’s team are Armie Hammer’s Ord (magnificently superior and, with Chris, one of the few present who seems to be able to shoot straight), Babou Ceesay’s Martin, who looks like a goner when he’s shot in the head, until he isn’t, Jack Reynor’s Harry (sporting odious chin whiskers and an attitude that winds pretty much everyone up, even on his side; he’s the one kicks things off when he shoots Stevo) and Noah Taylor’s Gordon. Also showing up is Patrick Bergin, who I completely failed to recognise, but it has been about 25 years since I saw him in anything.


Wheatley and regular co-writer Amy Jump (also editing collaborators; laudably, the geography of the action is only confusing when it’s supposed to be confusing) deliver wall-to-wall one-liners and putdowns (it’s hard to believe Murphy didn’t think it was a comedy when he read it, even given the fair amount of improvisation that was encouraged on set), and not a little John Denver to punctuate the proceedings (the score itself from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury displays moments of greatness too, particularly The Phone Rings).


Stevo assumes Vernon, “an international asshole” who was mistaken for a child genius and never got over it, is Austrian because of his accent. Copley revels in being a complete tool, attempting the tough act (“Africa’s not for sissies”) before squealing over a flesh wound, suggesting Hammer deal with the situation (“You distract him with your badinage and I leave”) and professing survival skills developed with Rhodesian special forces (“Hey Vern, I like your cardboard armour”).


Chisel-jawed Ord also comes in for much mockery (“Hey Ord, I bet you thought you were too handsome to get shot, huh?”; “Save it for your fucking autobiography”) and the only problem with the best line, attributed to Stevo (“I forgot whose side I’m on”), is that it comes too early, accompanied by insufficient mayhem to land at the most effective moment.


The ‘70s duds and hair are on the fancy dress side, sure, but the location (actually in Brighton) is a truly fetid dump of dirty needles, rubble and puddles, offering little cover while everyone scrambles for some, the best they can, amid wild gunfire and ridiculous ricochets. Wheatley excels in his camera placement picks, establishing tension and claustrophobia from limited lines of sight and movement. His only concessions to the main arena are an upstairs room containing a ringing telephone and the entrance corridor, but when action proceeds to those locations it’s just as contained, usually because characters have been reduced to crawling the distance.


Perhaps on the basis of past such setups (Reservoir Dogs not least), I was expecting a reveal of an undercover cop that never came, but Justine’s double-cross – though it had occurred to me she might be that non-existent cop – did come as a final shocker, especially since Ord and Chris are just about to grab a conciliatory beer. Chris is so gracious in his demise (“I’m sorry, you got in the way” admits Justine, not such a sharp shooter) you rather wish better for him (although, as with Dogs, the police arrive just in time to spoil Justine’s clean getaway).


That said, everyone here is so entertaining (maybe Taylor fails to etch out a memorable character), you don’t really want to see any of them die. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but a few more like this and I might be a Wheatley convert. I’m not sure his dabblings are any deeper or more invested in “character” than, say, David O Russell’s genre washes, but there’s more personality and less cynicism. And he also knows not to outstay his welcome.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delightsmay well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vie…

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …